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Was PlayStation's E3 criticism justified? l Opinion

Sony's issue with the world's biggest video games show might be more to do with changes in its own strategy

Sony made a rare appearance back in the news last week.

We've not really heard much from the console market leader since last June (outside of, you know, launching the smash hit Spider-Man and selling a huge amount of hardware). Sony is between worlds right now. It is working on its next-gen strategy, but it can't talk about that just yet. It has a new structure, but it's still tweaking and finalising. It has some big games coming out, but we know about them already. Sony, at this point in time, doesn't have a lot to say.

That is backed up by the absence of its usual European press conference or the PlayStation Experience last year, and its decision to forgo E3 for the first time in almost 25 years. Sure, this does open the floor for Nintendo and Xbox to waltz around unimpeded. But I'm sure the top brass at Sony will make do with its award-winning games and record-breaking console sales in the mean time.

So it's nice to see Shawn Layden pop up in the news last week, with a handful of interviews and a keynote talk at DICE.

"Layden's comments feel a bit harsh, especially when you consider how some of the most significant PS4 moments took place during E3"

Layden was candid, but in a controlled away, with plenty of talk about past mistakes and how great its competitors are -- it was right out of the Phil Spencer PR playbook. Yet Layden couldn't resist dishing out a bit of criticism, too, and he reserved it for the world's biggest video games event: E3.

"When we decided to take video games out of CES back in 1995, during the PlayStation 1 era, E3 served two constituencies: retailers and journalists," Layden told CNET. "Retailers would come in -- you'd see a guy come in, and he'd say, 'I'm from Sears, and I handle Hot Wheels, Barbie, VHS and video games. So what are you about?' There was a huge educational component.

"Then you had journalists who had magazines and lead time and jockeying for position on the cover. And there was no internet to speak of, so a trade show at that time of year for this nascent industry was exactly what we needed to do."

He continued: "Now we have an event in February called Destination PlayStation, where we bring all retailers and third-party partners to come hear the story for the year. They're making purchasing discussions in February. June, now, is just too late to have a Christmas holiday discussion with retailers. So retail has really dropped off. And journalists now, with the internet and the fact that 24/7 there is game news, it's lost its impact around that.

"So the trade show became a trade show without a lot of trade activity. The world has changed, but E3 hasn't necessarily changed with it."

Sony has always been a big presence at E3

Layden's criticism of E3 is entirely fair. But why make it now? This situation has been true for decades. Retailers arrive at E3 well briefed on what's going to happen (after all, they need to get the pre-orders ready). Online media eclipsed print media long ago, and Sony knows this very well. It was one of the first to embrace the fact that E3 was really a consumer show in disguise, by turning its conferences into fan celebrations. Today, consumers are now allowed into the show itself. The trade show pretence has almost entirely gone. E3 has changed, and Sony knows it.

So Layden's comments feel a bit harsh, especially when you consider how some of the most significant PS4 moments took place in LA during that specific week. Getting to the real heart of the issue relates to what Layden said about PlayStation's new content strategy.

"With our decision to do fewer games, bigger games, over longer periods of time, we got to a point where June of 2019 was not a time for us to have a new thing to say," he admitted. "And we feel like if we ring the bell and people show up here in force, people have expectation: 'Oh, they're going to tell us something.'"

And there we are. E3 is really an event about announcements. That's what sets the pulses racing and the audience whooping. The challenge for the event is that the big AAA games are taking longer to build, and therefore there are shows where Activision doesn't really make an appearance, or Take-Two takes a year off.

"PlayStation no-longer has the capacity to do the things at E3 that it was doing just a few years ago -- not every year"

If PlayStation really is adopting the classic 'fewer, bigger' strategy when it comes to software releases, how can it compete at E3 with Xbox? Which, coincidentally, is going in the opposite direction in many ways with its acquisition of numerous mid-sized developers. Layden's comments are not really a criticism of E3 at all, but rather an admission that -- going forward -- PlayStation's strategy doesn't lend itself to hosting a big conference with wall-to-wall game reveals (at least not every year).

In that context, Layden's suggestion that E3 becomes a "fan festival of gaming, where we don't gather there to drop the new bomb" makes sense. His call for it to be akin to Comic-Con, with developer panels, seems like a sensible strategy for a company that wants to show up to E3 with just two or three sizeable projects, just like Marvel might do at one of the big movie conventions.

There are a few challenges to that, of course. For starters, those events exist already. Whether it's PAX in the US or Gamescom in Europe (indeed, Sony used to be notable in its support of Gamescom, but it has scaled that back in recent years), there are plenty of Comic-Con-style events for Sony to attend if it so wanted.

Furthermore, E3 can already be a show where you don't 'drop the next bomb' and just run a series of panels. It's really a blank canvas for PlayStation to do what it likes. So what's stopping it from hosting a 45-minute panel on The Last of Us II and Death Stranding and stream it worldwide?

Simply put: because the other publishers aren't going to stop what they're doing just to suit PlayStation's new content strategy.

PlayStation's E3 booth was one of the biggest at the LACC

Sony actually did try to move away from big announcements last year. It focused on four previously announced products, with a smattering of smaller reveals. Unfortunately, it didn't go down very well. Partially that was due to the presentation, but it was also because of the unfavourable comparisons made between its showcase and Microsoft's -- which featured numerous big announcements and surprises.

Layden may talk about changing E3, but there's nothing to change from that perspective. He can't stop Xbox from announcing things, or Ubisoft, or Bethesda, or EA. Sony is free to treat the show like a Comic-Con, but it can't expect everyone else to follow suit.

"It's not that the world has changed; it's that PlayStation has changed"

Interestingly, Sony isn't the only company that has decided not to 'drop bombs' at E3 anymore. Nintendo stopped doing it about three years ago. It rocked up to E3 with nothing but Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which was announced in advance of the show. It spent an extended amount of time talking about the game, it put together a fancy booth experience, and it even ran some panels. It seemed indulgent, but Zelda became the talk of the show and it proved to be a very effective marketing strategy.

Since then, Nintendo has decided to focus primarily on one major game at each E3. In 2017 it was Super Mario Odyssey, and in 2018 it was Super Smash Bros Ultimate. Of course, E3 isn't responsible for those games going on to be huge sellers, but it played a part. Fans are not always happy with Nintendo's approach to the show, but they've become accustomed to it.

Of course, Nintendo is quite a different platform holder to Sony. It doesn't suffer quite the same level of comparison with Xbox, for starters. But Nintendo's recent E3 efforts show that you can focus on quality over quantity. You can approach the show like Comic-Con, and still come away with plenty of attention and excitement.

PlayStation has clearly decided this doesn't work for its brands, so its solution is to simply not go, and to criticise E3 in press interviews. After all, if Apple can snub CES and make it work, why can't PlayStation do the same with the world's biggest video games show?

Regardless, E3 isn't going anywhere. Xbox and Nintendo fans are excitedly talking about the June event already. The camera crews will still be there, the world's media will still be watching, and you can expect the companies that do go will be making the most of the extra breathing room.

It's not that the world has changed (although, of course, it has); it's that PlayStation has changed. It no-longer has the capacity to do the things at E3 that it was doing just a few years ago (not on an annual basis, anyway). Yet the onus is on Sony to change how it approaches the show -- if at all.

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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